Monday, October 25, 2010

Insurrection At Death Frost Doom

Death Frost Doom is a module produced by James Raggi, which was provided for me a little more than a week ago. This is my second review for a work of his. The first was written last week and can be read here.

Unlike that review, some of this writing will include very moderate spoilers, none of which will be genuinely understood by those who have not read or seen the module. However, the gentle reader should be able to obtain a sense for how the module runs, and how I and my party viewed it.

I ran this module, for my party, two days ago on Saturday. The reason I must allow for some spoilers is because my main purpose for writing this review is not only to give my impression of the module, but more specifically the party's impression. From the title of the post, you should be able to guess that the party did not take it well.

I decided to run this module of the other three I had available because a portion of my players characters is at present wandering its way westward through central Europe in late November, so an ice-cold, snowy adventure was in order. In order to 'encourage' my players to actually play the module - it was understood up front that I would be presenting it - I knew that there would have to be a certain degree of railroading the party into playing it. This is definitely not my style. However, it was done lightheartedly, and the players went along with it, with the understanding that this would not be typical.

Without getting at all deep into it, the 'hook' of the module is that there is a crypt/cult temple on top of a mountain that promises treasure. Player involvement is expected to be voluntary ... but for my party I whipped up a great two day blizzard that stranded them at Zeke's cabin, and used elements of the module to compel them to investigate the crypt or else suffer consequences.

The hook is delivered by a hermit Zeke Duncaster, who talks about how evil the crypt is, and how evil the area is around the crypt, and how many people were killed, and how horrific things are up around the cabin up the mountain, and so on. When I read the module, I found all of this terrifically interesting, and my first impressions of the module were very positive. I looked forward to sitting down and playing up the horror, of the various elements that would bring on the creepiness of the adventure. I considered the elements as they were laid out - at least above ground - to be creative, distracting and legitimately profound.

The party, however, did not think so.

When they learned that the hermit had been setting up grave markers for the thousands of dead, and that he'd been doing this for some time, living for decades nearby the site, the party answered, "Well, Zeke seems to have everything under control. Let's get the fuck out of here."

They wanted nothing to do with the site, with its treasure, or with any investigations thereof. It seemed like the stupidest idea in the world to go anywhere near the place, and they only did because I railroaded them. In any ordinary circumstance they would have moved on. But they doggedly turned to invest themselves in the module, without much complaining.

We talked it over at that point and the party's sentiments was that the horror played for the module was thing upon thing upon thing - to the point of stupidity. The party explained that they were not stupid teenagers in a slasher flick, but rather people who actually appreciated their lives and were smart enough to stay the fuck away from a place like that. "Why don't we just go to the next big city, tell a bunch of high level clerics that this thing is here and have them fix it?"

Which is, as I said in my previous review, the equivalent of pulling off the planet and nuking the place from orbit. As I encouraged them to go ahead anyway, they wanted to know, "If it is inside the borders of a powerful empire (and it is), then how is it our problem?"

Thus, the railroading.

Arriving on site with the initial part of the adventure, that which happens above ground, I discovered problem #2 with the module.

Virtually all of it is fiddling-dependent. By that, I mean that the description for virtually everything the players encounter depends upon player-motivated interaction. The module spends pages describing all these things, mostly saying, "If the players ..." do or touch or move or sleep or rest or try or whatever else. Here's the clock, here's the book, here's the tree, here's the well, here's the cabin, here's the painting, and if the players play with the stuff, it does this or that or the other thing.

Problem is, if the players don't do a goddamn thing, because their mammas didn't raise no stupid children, it takes about thirty fucking minutes to go through the entire first part of the adventure. And most of that is me reading descriptions. Describing the clock and describing the tree and describing the well and the cabin and what the hell else, while the players went "That's interesting." and then walked away without doing anything. I could talk about all the things they didn't do, but that would be giving spoilers about the module.  All I can say is that if the players don't fiddle with all the interesting compelling features in the adventure, NOTHING HAPPENS.

Now, maybe I missed something. Maybe I didn't describe the wondrous detail of the objects enough to encourage people to get interested in things ... except that I know from the party that it's more likely that I described things too well. I described the tree in detail, so the party didn't want to go anywhere near the thing. I described the book in detail, so the party treated it like a dangerously fragile explosive device. They didn't rearrange the furniture because they were scared out of their fucking wits ... and they wanted to get the hell away from the place for the same reason. Except they couldn't, because I was forcing them to stay.

Well they knew I was, didn't they? It's not hard to tell when a DM wants you to walk into a pre-written adventure ... suddenly it’s snowing or there's an army parked over the hill or someone gets kidnapped and the party has to go get him or whatever else forces you to stay. That's the whole thing with a DM. You know it's the DM ... and not a random, disconnected chance. So the truth about the module is PDC: the Party Doesn't Care.

And so they wouldn't play with anything and we zipped through this part. We had another discussion about that, i.e., does anyone want to investigate further, and the party explained that no, they saw no real value in doing that, it seemed a stupid thing to do and no way were they going to 'try' things they found. I guess they must love their characters.

So we had a break, and began part two, underground.

Well, here the module lapses into an age-old module formula: put the players to sleep. Have the players stagger around in empty room after empty room, until they are so goddamn tired of walking into rooms and searching around and finding nothing, they get careless and do something stupid, getting themselves killed.

Holy shit did the party complain.

Continuous cries of "What the fuck!" and "Give me a fucking break!" and "Of course it’s another fucking empty room!" went on for quite some time. Between mapping and problem solving and reading descriptions, while trying to give any semblance of mystery and time and place, we spent an hour and a half staggering around rooms, most of them steeped in anciently spilled blood. Once again, the party refused to fiddle with anything. They made quite a few references to video game mechanics - which work off the same basic formula - and taking note of the various stages with the battle cry, "Congratulations, you have solved the puzzle that allows you to enter the Main Puzzle!"

They were bored out of their ever-loving minds - and so was I.

It isn't much fun as a DM to just describe and describe shit, with none of it being interactive. There was no chance for dialogue, no chance for a freaking mouse to attack the party, just nothing. Whatever creepiness and sense of doom that was at least hinted at on the surface died an ugly death in the subterranean. For those who have the module and thus the map, consider that the party repeatedly chose 'left' at every crossroads, that being the principle that they employed towards mapping the place out. And because they went left, left, left, they missed the other big horror in the module that would have made them want to do exactly what they had wanted to do from the very first event: leave. But I won't spoil what that is for those who don't know. Ask your friends.

The final blow was Room 18. I won't go into detail, but the room requires the DM to pull a rather cheap trick on the player characters, with - in the opinion of everyone present - completely stupid results. I wondered how the party was going to respond to it. The overall effect is that it’s supposed to create a moment of panic for everyone, as they try to control one member of the party doing something completely insane. It might have worked, if the motivator for the event hadn't been quite so lame (sorry, no other word for it) ... but after the sheer boredom the party had been tolerating up to that point, an insurrection was staged.

And I mean the party literally rose from the table and refused to play any further. So I called the session closed and bought everyone off with some experience points - in spite of no combat and hardly any dice rolling, none of which  occurred at any point in the session. This mitigated their ill feelings towards the module and towards ME somewhat.

So the rest of the night, about another two hours, included:

  • Me explaining everything they missed (not particularly helpful in making them appreciate the module).
  • Everyone bitching about why modules suck and why they will always suck.
  • And a refusal to play another module again, period.

So I won't be fulfilling the plan I had to run in one of Mr. Raggi's modules, simply because at this point I have no DM in my acquaintance willing to run it. I feel that overall I would have been more patient with the empty rooms than my party was, but that's mostly because I'm more familiar with modules, I would be well aware of the module's intentions and because, well, I'm older and used to coping with boredom. That's what happens when you get older - you spend so much time dealing with unfilled time, you get better at amusing yourself.

It makes me wonder about the positive feelings I had about the first module I reviewed. Does it play as well as it reads? Mr. Raggi claims to play-test his modules and I do not doubt him, but I think I need to add a rejoinder that if your party is used to being in control of their activities, question whether or not this, or any module, is for them.


For those who still come to view this review, even though it has been four years, I would like to direct you to this point-by-point assessment of the same module.  In it, the author confirms much of what I've written above.  The author also reminds me of many, many idiotic parts of the module that I did not take the time to write upon.  I appreciate greatly that the author has given me some insight as to why people like the module - mostly for reasons that do not reflect well on those people.

Finally, I should like to express my immense satisfaction in there being another person in the world that is able to recognize the module for the garbage that it is.

November 14, 2014